After Inspection, Attorney Slams ‘Unsanitary’ Bil Mar Meat Plant - The Grand Rapids Press - March 3, 1999

By: Karla D. Shores
The Grand Rapids Press
March 3, 1999

A Chicago lawyer compared a portion of the Bil Mar manufacturing plant to a "garage" and peppered his description of certain areas in the plant with words like "unsanitary" and "substandard" after a day-long tour there Tuesday with some hired health inspectors.

Kenneth Moll, who represents clients in two suits against Bil Mar Foods Co. and parent company Sara Lee Corp. stemming from a bacteria outbreak liked to the processor, said the plant was otherwise clean.

But the hot dog manufacturing portion of the plant "stuck out like a sore thumb" in comparison, Moll said.

"Ninety-nine percent of the plant was spic and span. It was run very well. Then you have this little corner where they did hot dogs. Very substandard," Moll said.

Sara Lee officials have routinely declined to comment on matters of pending litigation.

Former U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors have said the sprawling 14-acre plant uses good procedures and is clean.

Michigan State University meat science professor Alden M. Booren, who has worked with Bil Mar over the past 18 years, said the plant uses "good science" to pinpoint and correct problems quickly.

Bil Mar faces at least five lawsuits resulting from the listeria outbreak. On Dec. 22, the company recalled 15 million pounds of hot dogs and cold cuts after a rare strain of the bacteria was found in an opened package of hot dog. That same strain, pattern E, was later found in unopened packages of hot dogs.

Pattern E, has been linked to 14 deaths and six miscarriages among 97 illnesses in 22 states from early August to Jan. 17, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday.

Listeria can be found in soil, water and raw foods. The bacteria can cause death or severe illness in women who are pregnant, people with weakened immune systems, newborns and the elderly.

So far, USDA and company investigators have been unable to pinpoint the source of the contamination.

Last week, Sara Lee agreed to open its doors to Mol and other attorneys who have filed lawsuits against the Ottawa County meat processor before it begins an extensive remodeling project.

Moll, who toured the plant Tuesday, said the focus of his three-day visit to West Michigan is to determine whether employers knew about circumstances he believes led to the listeria contamination, and if so, how long they knew, Moll interviewed former employees of the plant during his visit.

"It seems like a very simple case," Moll said. "The manufacturers right now should admit liability. If you manufacture a product that is defective, you're liable.

"They should go a step further and acknowledge what they did wrong to make the consumer feel better, but we believe they're not.'

Moll toured the 14-acre facility in Borculo with seven inspectors, a videographer, audiographer and photographer for nearly 12 hours before he left the facility and returned to his hotel room after 9 p.m. Tuesday. He planned to return to Chicago today.

The head inspector of the group, Jerry Cannon, owns an inspection company. Another inspector in the team, Bert Bartleson, of Olympia Wash., works for the Washington State Health Department.

Moll said his team found possible problems with ventilation, condensation, low ceilings, worker traffic flow between raw and cooked meat areas, and stains on the ceiling.

Moll said he captured footage of the plant's operation and appearance on videotape and photos. He plans to use these in a deposition in this suit he has filed that is seeking class-action status. He has also filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of a Memphis man whose wife died of listeriosis in October.